Danielle Owen Whitford, the founder of Pioneera, reached a career inflection point that challenged long-held assumptions about good leadership. Her top lessons reveal the impact of professional purpose and transforming leadership styles for the better.
Demanding workloads and stress are an increasing reality in today’s fast-paced workplace. Unfortunately, that makes burnout more common too. As a result, managing team wellbeing and mental health is now squarely part of the leadership mandate.
However, leaders are also stretched, and team wellbeing issues can be hidden in remote work environments. With most already navigating competing responsibilities, this is adding to the pressure.
For Danielle Owen Whitford, founder of technology start-up, Pioneera, a digital platform designed to manage mental health and wellbeing, her experience with this challenge is deeply personal. As a former corporate executive, it was her own experiences with burnout that made her question what it means to be a good leader and set her on a new path.
“I was leading major company transformation for a large organisation when my wellbeing began to deteriorate, and it went mostly unnoticed by myself and others. However, it forced me to question the traditional notions of leadership success and find new measures that better aligned with my personal values.”
Through her experiences, Danielle not only changed her career trajectory, giving up corporate life for entrepreneurship, but transformed her leadership identity in the process. Now, an acute appreciation of the positive impact of wellbeing flows through to both her leadership purpose and Pioneera’s solution.
Redefining leadership identity and success
According to Danielle, one of the top lessons she took away from her experience with burnout was to rethink what constitutes sustainable leadership success.
"We are trained to look up and consider people successful who get the big jobs, the money, the reputation and prestige that comes with traditional career success,” Danielle says. “That aspiration is ingrained in workers, and I’ll admit that climbing the ladder and doing more complex work was important to me."
Danielle saw first-hand the adverse impact of pursuing career highs to the detriment of one's mental and physical health. On a positive note, she emerged with a new perspective on leadership and professional purpose.
"At the time, I reflected on my situation, judged myself harshly and wondered why I couldn't cope as well as others. However, when I started talking to people, I found that they also had similar experiences."
“Wellbeing issues are more widespread than we think, and being able to pick up on the signs early and provide support is something I now consider to be at the forefront of good leadership,” Danielle says.
New models of leadership
Danielle explains that the model of a successful leader has fundamentally changed in the post-covid world. Now, demonstrating empathy is more crucial to the strong cultural foundations of the workplace, and team performance.
“Leaders are often squeezed between the organisation's objectives and people's needs, but they're also the linchpin that ties the two together,” says Danielle. “What it means to be a good leader has shifted, where care and psychological safety, not just workload, are drivers of productivity,” she says.
Striking a balance between wellbeing and the organisation’s objectives has led Danielle to coin the term ‘positive productivity’. She is now working with board members and executives to develop a measurement framework around the concept that can sit beside metrics like net promoter scores (NPS).
“This will be the point at which the organisation, leadership, and employee wellbeing intersect, demonstrating that wellbeing and mental health should be viewed in the same light as other more traditional metrics,” she says.
Lightening the cognitive load
Danielle believes that technology has an important role in helping leaders balance competing demands, particularly when it comes to monitoring people's wellbeing. She says apps and digital solutions can provide evidence based strategies or encourage widespread positive behavioural change.
This view stems from the work she has done to develop Indie, Pioneera’s AI-driven wellbeing solution. Indie integrates with chat or email to pick up on stress markers in real time and deliver personalised nudges that can help prevent the escalation of stress that leads to burnout.
While Indie was originally designed for individuals, Danielle says that once they had launched, leaders and managers started proactively approaching her to use the tool. Part of the reason was they were struggling to gain insight into their team’s mental health and saw the potential for technology to help.
The growing interest in Indie from leaders was in its ability to help them understand when their teams are under stress, even when remote, notes Danielle. She carefully points out that managers can only see aggregated team data, with personal information anonymised, to ensure security and privacy.
“We often have organisations that identify stress patterns and change how they operate. For example, understanding people’s best and toughest days of the week and scheduling activity with that in mind can lead to better outcomes.”
“I have also had managers tell me they’re not sure whether technology should replace something as important as managing people’s mental health. There will always be a role for leaders to do this and our tech simply supports leaders, to be caring and more empathetic and redirect their energy to where it’s needed most. This is also good for the leader's mental health”
“Leaders are there to lead", says Danielle. “They need tools to lighten the cognitive load and augment, rather than replace key leadership traits”.
“With Indie, it’s like having a fleet of coaches or being with a friend that can give you real insight into the situation, and then doing that at the scale one person would never be able to achieve,” Danielle added.
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